The Journey

June 2016

Keep Student Engagement and Classroom Environment & Culture In Mind!

Teachers are so swamped with work at the end of the year that it's easy to lose sight of how important—and challenging—the end-of-year transition can be for students. We should consider spending as much time bringing our community to a thoughtful close as we did building a community at the beginning of the year.
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The Impact of School Breaks on Students Living in Poverty

This time of year can bring trepidation to students and the thought of having to be home can become daunting and frightening. Keeping that in mind, teachers can continue to build a support system, preserve the relationship, and keep learning going in the classroom.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

1. Give them control over their assignments. Structure assignments so students get to choose from among several options; those options could include alternative approaches to mastering the same content. For example, they could do a photo/video essay (including verbal explanations) on a topic of their choosing related to the content being covered in class.

2. Explain how academic content applies to their lives. Just telling students they will need Skill X in their lives won’t work. They need specific examples of Skill X applied in adult lives. For example, my students resisted working on percentages and decimals. Once I showed them how my paycheck disappeared, they realized money was important. I then gave them assignments that had them calculating: income from hourly wage jobs, the specific deductions (from a percentage) employers took out, and (theoretical) expenses of living (rent, food, transportation, utilities, etc.). Typical reactions were initial shock followed by willing attitudes to do the work, even if it was difficult.

3. Ensure success. Seeing their (point-based) grades improve was a real high for students. Praise them often and honestly, not falsely over trivial accomplishments or deeds. Let them know they can succeed and show how they are making progress.

4. Teach the skills they are missing so they can do what they need to do. I found that many students did not know how to communicate in complete sentences, so I taught them how to write a sentence. Many did not understand description, so I taught them how to describe things. Many couldn’t give directions, so I taught them how to give (and follow) directions.

5. Be honest and direct with them, not afraid of them. Because of some young people’s prior history of failure or poor social relationships, school may not have inspired feelings of safety. Structure and boundaries, when defined and enforced, give both you and students a sense of security.

6. Enjoy the people they are and do not expect them to be who they can’t be at the moment. Students are evolving, and they need you to find what is good in them during each moment they spend with you. Work with the individual who is experiencing life with you; it may be the best part of their day.

7. Dare to be different. Face your own limitations with acceptance and coping skills. Teach students how to accept themselves and compensate for their limitations. Accept the challenges of working with them and find ways in which you and they can be successful. Be their role model—demonstrate responsible behaviors and a positive outlook on life. You may be the only influence they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

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Ending the Year on a High Note

Mike Anderson

As the end of the school year approaches, students—and teachers—usually feel a range of emotions: sadness at saying goodbye, excitement about new adventures, and anxiety about the transition to a new grade. Some children worry about where they'll live during the summer and who'll take care of them. For all children, leaving the comfort and security of daily life at school can be unsettling.

How can you end the year on a high note? Here are some ways to help make end-of-the-year activities meaningful and successful.

Recognize the accomplishments of all students—including those who've struggled. All children are part of the classroom community, and during every school year, even those who face many challenges learn and grow in some way. In fact, children who struggle (either academically or socially) usually need positive recognition the most—and receive it the least.

Find alternatives to awards ceremonies. Traditional end-of-the-year awards single out some students for praise while leaving many unrecognized. But a child challenged in academics or athletics may shine in creativity or citizenship. If your school culture requires traditional ceremonies, try to balance them with more inclusive classroom activities that recognize each child's unique journey.

Reflect as a group. Brainstorm with your class about the year's accomplishments and events, the ways they helped each other learn, and even mistakes they learned from. Such group reflection reinforces children's sense of belonging to a safe and supportive community. It also gets them thinking about their individual learning. Children may enjoy creating games and riddles based on their year's learning, planning a class museum or bulletin board of "Our Great Year," or assembling a class memory book.

Reflect as individuals. Invite children to think about their learning in each subject, favorite books, friendships formed, funniest moments, and even challenges—but keep the focus on growth and learning. Comparing older and recent work samples shows students how far they've come. Naming their hopes for future learning helps children look ahead with excitement to the next year. Children can create mobiles, posters, slide shows, memory books, or portfolios to share work they're especially proud of with friends and family members.

Have students recognize one another. Invite students to write one positive trait about each classmate on a small piece of paper. Collecting the compliments helps each child feel valued as a member of the school community.

Address anxieties about the next grade. Give children plenty of opportunities to ask questions about the year ahead. If possible, visit a classroom at the next grade or have older students come in to answer questions. Making an "information book" for the incoming class helps students feel confident in their ability as learners while truly helping younger students.

Choose a special read-aloud. Many teachers have established the lovely tradition of reading a special book on the last day of school. Choose a class favorite or a new title that celebrates the community you've built, the friendships children have made, and the values you've discussed together. Make sure the book also has a rich story or intriguing characters. Seems like a lot to ask of one book, but many fit the bill! Get suggestions from colleagues or your school librarian.

Write a personal note to each child. A brief note from you affirming the year's successes will help children see themselves as capable learners, prepared to take on the challenges of the next grade with confidence and excitement.

Teachers are so swamped with work at the end of the year that it's easy to lose sight of how important—and challenging—the end-of-year transition can be for students. We should consider spending as much time bringing our community to a thoughtful close as we did building a community at the beginning of the year.

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How Can Teachers Stay Energized?

Larry Ferlazzo -- English Teacher, Sacramento, CA

Here are a few ideas that are modified versions of what community organizers are often urged to do when they are feeling "burned-out":

Work fewer hours: By this time of the year, "throwing time" at school doesn't pay dividends. Cutting back on outrageous work hours per week can often result in feeling more energized in the classroom.

Read a stimulating book: Finding an intellectually-stimulating book (or article) on teaching and learning might get you excited to try out some new things, even though it's the end of the year.

Watch an intellectually stimulating video on the Web: Watching one of the numerous short and thought-provoking videos on the Web from sites like TED Talks, The Big Think, Ignite, Big Ideas Fest or Pop Tech is another option. These videos are free and showcase presentations by people who are doing some of the most "cutting-edge" thinking and working in the world.

Write something useful for other teachers: Whether it's a blog post or a lesson plan to be shared (or something else), forcing yourself to craft something public can keep your mind sharp.

Make a point to eat lunch with teachers you don't know well, but are impressed with: It can be energizing to meet with another teacher and learn why they chose this profession, what they've discovered about teaching and learning, what gives them energy, and to hear their "story."

Though we generally think of the word "end" as a conclusion, we should keep in mind it comes from the Greek word anti, which means "before." While we might think we're concluding the school year, we are really, much more importantly, setting students, and ourselves, up for what comes next.

Friendly Reminder

In preparation for the 2016-2017 school year, be sure to touch base with your administrator regarding any required training opportunities and August pre-duty days that you'll need to calendar for the summer!